FERGUSON, Robert (1769-1840), of Raith, Fife and 18 Portman Square, Mdx.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1820-1832, ed. D.R. Fisher, 2009
Available from Cambridge University Press

Constituency

Dates

1806 - 1807
1831 - 1832
1837 - 3 Dec. 1840

Family and Education

b. 8 Sep. 1769,1 1st s. of William Ferguson (formerly Berry) of Raith and Jean, da. of Ronald Craufurd of Restalrig, Edinburgh; bro. of Sir Ronald Craufurd Ferguson*. educ. Edinburgh 1786; Glasgow Univ. 1788; adv. 1791. m. 20 Apr. 1808, Mary, da. and h. of William Hamilton Nisbet† of Dirleton, Haddington, div. w. of Thomas, 7th earl of Elgin [S], s.p. suc. fa. 1810. d. 3 Dec. 1840.

Offices Held

Ld. lt. Fife 1837-d.

Biography

Ferguson was a Whig landowner with substantial estates and political influence in Haddingtonshire, Fifeshire and Dysart Burghs, where, with the 2nd earl of Rosslyn, he returned his only brother and close confidant Sir Ronald. He was also the respected amateur geologist after whom the mineral Fergusonite is named. His parliamentary career as Member for Fifeshire had been curtailed in 1807 on account of the local unpopularity of Lord Grenville’s administration, which he had supported, and the scandal of his acknowledged adultery with his future wife, the countess of Elgin.2 Her first husband, his near neighbour the 7th earl, successfully sued him in both the English and Scottish courts that year for £10,000 in damages in one of the bitterest and most high profile divorce cases of the era. Elgin denied his ex-wife all contact with their children, and the attendant trauma was the rumoured reason why her marriage with Ferguson was childless.3 Ferguson remained active in Whig and Foxite circles and was in France in 1819 when his candidature for Fifeshire was broached with a view to preventing the sitting Tory William Wemyss bequeathing the representation to his son. Although initially reluctant, he started late and polled second to James Wemyss in a three-man contest in 1820.4 Outlining his political creed on the hustings, he affirmed his commitment to the ‘constitution of 1688’, reform and local interests, and declared ‘extremes in politics - ultra Toryism and ultra Whiggism ... unsound’.5

While Sir Ronald remained a prominent opposition Member and advanced his military career in the 1820s, Ferguson concerned himself with county politics, business and legislation, especially the 1821 Dysart ferries bill and the collapse in November 1826 of Greenhill’s Fife Ferry Company in which he had invested heavily, thereby suffering losses: he was a principal speaker at attendant county and trustees’ meetings, 1825-8.6 The parlous state of Elgin’s finances also affected him under various settlements, and the 1829 Ferguson estate bill, authorizing trustees to sell his entailed estates (chiefly in Midlothian) was enacted to liquidate his debts and reduce his encumbrances. A bill filed in the court of session on 17 Aug. 1829 confirmed his 1817 holograph will in favour of his brother.7 He surprised the Edinburgh Whigs by supporting Lord John Hay* in Haddingtonshire and acquiescing in the return of Rosslyn’s Tory son Lord Loughborough for Dysart Burghs at the 1830 general election, when Sir Ronald came in for Nottingham; but he declared unequivocally for reform at dinners afterwards in Fifeshire and Haddingtonshire.8 He welcomed the Grey ministry’s reform bill and wrote to James Brougham*, 20 Mar. 1831:

Ministers must not give way. Better dissolve than yield one iota of importance. The conduct of some astonish me, and vex me. Our old friend Lord Rosslyn, where is he? Does he believe that ere long ... Wellington or P[eel will] govern the country? And to divide in the minority against your brother’s most important [chancery] bills!!! And what is the meaning of this? There never was a moment which requires more firmness.9

At the general election in May 1831, precipitated by the bill’s defeat, Ferguson rallied to Wemyss, the defeated ‘reformer’, in Fifeshire and co-operated with the town clerk of Kinghorn, Thomas Barclay, to secure his own return for the Burghs.10 On the hustings he declared for the ‘all-engrossing measure of reform in all its essential particulars’ and praised the district’s councils for endorsing it.11

Parliamentary reporters occasionally confused Ferguson, who was generally described as ‘of Raith’, with his brother ‘the General’, Robert Alexander Ferguson, Member for Londonderry, and the reformer Robert Cutlar Fergusson, Member for Kirkcudbright Stewarty. He generally supported the ministry with his brother and proved to be a steady voter and useful plain-speaking commentator for them on reform and Scottish issues.12 Denis le Marchant†, writing in February 1833, praised ‘his simple straightforward manner and the earnestness with which he expressed himself’ that commanded the attention of younger Members.13 He voted for the reintroduced reform bill at its second reading, 6 July 1831, and consistently for its details. He took a pair for the first fortnight of September to ‘conduct’ his wife to Buxton, but agreed to ‘return sooner if the report is brought up’.14 Votes attributed to him on the Liverpool writ, 5 Sept., renewal of the Sugar Refinery Act, 12 Sept., and the disfranchisement of Appleby, 14 Sept., are therefore doubtful. He voted for the bill’s passage, 21 Sept. Before dividing for the second reading of the Scottish reform bill, 23 Sept., he confirmed that country’s support for the measure, defended the proposed £10 franchise and boldly denounced ‘Scotch jobs’:

Some man has constantly stepped forward to undertake its political management, he got the patronage of the country, and the English government never cared what became of Scotland provided he brought up his well-disciplined Members, and planted them in the back rows of the ministerial benches to do the ministerial biddings. I hope, however, that now the spirit of independence has arisen within us, as well as the wealth and intelligence, we shall all be different men.

He voted against the Tory amendment to give second county Members to Aberdeenshire, Ayrshire, Fifeshire, Forfarshire, Lanarkshire, Midlothian, Perthshire and Renfrewshire, 4 Oct., and for Lord Ebrington’s confidence motion, 10 Oct. 1831. Deputizing for his fellow Whig Thomas Kennedy in the debate on the Irish yeomanry, 18 July, he described how ‘these unfortunate Orange processions have found their way into Scotland’ and should be legislated against. He contended that a free trade in corn, as advocated by Henry Hunt, would be ruinous to the landlord, the farmer and the agricultural labourer, 24 July. He added his voice as a member of the Pembrokeshire election committee to the clamour for the issue of a new writ there, despite the proven partiality of the sheriff and under-sheriff and the ‘derogatory conduct of the assessor’, 26 Sept. 1831.

He divided for the revised reform bill at its second reading, 17 Dec. 1831, steadily for its details and for its third reading, 22 Mar. 1832. The Times considered him a contender should further peerages be awarded to carry the bill, and he testified to Scotland’s support for it ‘as can be seen in their petitions, urban and rural’, 2 Feb. 1832.15 He voted for the address calling on the king to appoint only ministers who would carry the bill unimpaired, 10 May, for the second reading of the Irish reform bill, 25 May, and against a Conservative amendment to the Scottish measure, 1 June. When on the 4th Alexander Pringle countered his criticism of voting by superiorities, ‘emblems of the old unconstitutional political workings in Scotland’, by alluding to several he had sold, Ferguson admitted it and said that he had been short of money at the time. He added:

What does this high price prove, but, that, according to circumstances, these votes became valuable for political purposes ... [It is] another strong proof that they should cease to exist in future. Several years ago I possessed such votes in different counties in Scotland, but disliking their nature, I could not vote with satisfaction upon them, and gave them all up sold.

He failed to dissuade the reformer Hallyburton from dividing the House on a futile proposal to bar Scottish clergymen from voting in parliamentary elections, 6 June, and voted that day against Alexander Baring’s bill denying insolvent debtors parliamentary privilege. He welcomed the government’s decision to abandon the Members’ property qualification for burghs and criticized the Scottish coronation peers Lords Panmure (William Maule*) and Camperdown for advocating them, 27 June. When Banffshire petitioned for inquiry into Scottish municipal government, Ferguson spoke of it as a natural and immediate consequence of the enactment of reform and called on the lord advocate Jeffrey to propose it, as he would ‘experience no great difficulty in carrying it through the House’, 6 July. He divided with government on the Dublin election controversy, 23 Aug. 1831, and the Russian-Dutch loan, 12, 16, 20 July 1832.

Praising the Scottish master spinners and their employment practices, he spoke authoritatively against the precipitate passage of Hobhouse’s factories regulation bill without adequate inquiry, 9, 20 Feb. 1832, although he voted for its committal that day. Heeding the alarm it had aroused in Kirkcaldy, he and his brother urged the House to ‘legislate as simply as possible, with the least possible injury to the operative and employer, 7 Mar. He suggested extending the Scottish tithe system to Ireland, ‘as it is impossible to maintain a church establishment that is inimical to the feelings of the great body of the nation’, 8 Feb. He would have no truck with Hume’s time-wasting division against including a reference to ‘Almighty God’ in the preamble to the Scottish cholera prevention bill, 16 Feb. He presented a petition in favour of the Haddington court house bill, 2 Mar., and several against the Edinburgh-Glasgow railway bill, 18 Apr., 25 June. On 28 June 1832 he published a letter declaring his personal support (and that of the reformers) for the candidature of Wemyss for Fifeshire at the first post-reform election.16

Standing as a Liberal, Ferguson was returned unopposed for the revamped Kirkcaldy district in December 1832.17 He contested Haddingtonshire successfully in 1835, and on his defeat there in 1837 he resumed the Burghs seat.18 He succeeded Rosslyn as lord lieutenant of Fifeshire that year and died at his London home in Portman Square in December 1840, only two days after the death of his stepson Lord Bruce. He is commemorated by the Raith monument designed by Robert Forest, and with his brother in Sir Henry Raeburn’s portrait of ‘The Archers’.19 Sir Ronald was appointed Ferguson’s executor, 24 Dec. 1840, but died before his succession to the estates under the holograph will was confirmed. His son Robert (Munro) Ferguson (1802-68), Liberal Member for the Kirkcaldy district, 1841-62, was sworn as Ferguson’s heir, on inventoried goods valued at £4,181 7s. 1d., 25 Sept. 1846.20 Paying tribute to the Fergusons in 1841, the Liberal lawyer Henry Cockburn wrote:

These two men showed what good may be effected by mere steadiness of principle and its honest exhibition; for without any superiority of knowledge, talent or original influence, public principle alone, fearlessly but temperately enforced on proper occasions, and softened by agreeable manners and very amiable acts, enabled them powerfully to advance the Scotch cause at a time when political independence had few attractions either for military officers or for country gentlemen. So long as Parliament was unreformed, the elder brother was exactly the man whom it was the object of the Scotch system to degrade by exclusion from the ... Commons, because, though a great landed proprietor, he dared to be in opposition. Yet he was returned, even then occasionally, and always since. A taste for science, however, and the personal superintendence of large estates always rescued him from the ordinary frivolities of wealthy idleness; and from his youth to his dying hour he did everything for the improvement of his countrymen that could be accomplished by active but candid co-operation with the Liberal party, and the promotion of all the local benefits which it is in the power of a judicious and resident landowner to diffuse ... The importance of two gentlemen of their character and station to the side they espoused can only be understood by those who acted in Scotch affairs before the reform bill emancipated the country.21

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: Margaret Escott

Notes

  • 1. IGI.
  • 2. HP Commons, 1790-1820, ii. 596-7; iii. 741;
  • 3. Trial of R. Ferguson ... for Crim. Con. (1807); Oswald of Dunnikier mss III/I; S.G. Checkland, The Elgins, 59, 61, 70, 71.
  • 4. NAS GD51/1/198/10/77-80, 82, 86; Dundee, Perth and Cupar Advertiser, 18 Feb.; Bradford mss (History of Parliament Aspinall transcripts), Lady to Lord Newport, 27 Feb. 1820.
  • 5. Scotsman, 25 Mar.; Caledonian Mercury, 3 Apr.; Oswald of Dunnikier mss VIA/2, election speeches, 1820.
  • 6. Fife Herald, 3, 24 Mar. 1825; Caledonian Mercury, 14 Dec. 1826, 11 Oct. 1828; NAS GD164/1303/7, 15, 21; 1781/10.
  • 7. Oswald of Dunnikier mss III/I, pprs. of 7th and 8th earls of Elgin; LJ, lxi. 259, 403, 458, 465, 588; CJ, lxxxiv. 373; NAS SC70/1/63.
  • 8. Caledonian Mercury, 12 July, 6 Sept.; Fife Herald, 8, 22 July, 26 Aug., 9 Sept. 1830, 28 Apr. 1831; Add. 36554, f. 135.
  • 9. Brougham mss.
  • 10. Caledonian Mercury, 25, 28 Apr., 2, 12, 19 May 1831.
  • 11. Ibid. 26 May; The Times, 31 May 1831.
  • 12. G. Pentland, ‘Debate on Scottish Parliamentary Reform, 1830-1832’, SHR, lxxxv (2006), 118.
  • 13. A. Aspinall, ‘Le Marchant’s Reports of Debates in the House of Commons, 1833’, EHR, lviii (1943), 89.
  • 14. Add. 34615, f. 159.
  • 15. The Times, 19 Jan. 1832.
  • 16. Caledonian Mercury, 2 July 1832.
  • 17. Ibid. 20 Dec. 1832.
  • 18. Scottish Electoral Politics, 15-16, 221, 226, 236-7, 268-9.
  • 19. Gent. Mag. (1841), i. 315-16.
  • 20. NAS SC70/1/63, 66.
  • 21. Cockburn Jnl. i. 274-6.

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